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Forest for the Trees: A glimpse into the future?

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Blake Bodily’s brief runout in the Timbers’ playoff match could have potentially been the first glimpse of Portland’s next young impact attacker.

FC Dallas v Portland Timbers: Round One - MLS Cup Playoffs Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images

Confession time: I attended the University of Washington for my undergraduate degree (come at me, Duck fans). Because of this, I have been in tune to the rise of one of the newest homegrown players for the Portland Timbers: Blake Bodily.

A native of Eagle, Idaho, Bodily is a product of the Timbers academy system, making his debut for Timbers 2 in 2015 when he was just 15 years old. While younger than many of his teammates, Bodily never looked out of place on T2, and even took a gap year to stay with the USL side and develop before heading off to college.

After three seasons at UW and a few more appearances for T2 during the college offseasons, Bodily joined the Timbers first team on a homegrown deal ahead of the 2020 season. He then proceeded to ... play only one single solitary minute for the first team at MLS is Back. His incredibly brief cameo against NYCFC in the quarterfinals was, up until last Sunday, his only appearance for the senior team.

But then, as the lineups were released for the playoff match against FC Dallas, many readers of the tweets noticed something that the silly person tweeting from the STF account failed to notice:

(It was me. I was the silly person tweeting from the STF account).

Bodily appeared to have supplanted Tomas Conechny in the starting lineup for the playoff match. This was significant for a number of reasons. First, Conechny had been a regular on the bench for much of this season. Second, Conechny had pretty definitively underperformed when he did play. And third, Bodily had only played the aforementioned single minute for the Timbers all season, and it was perhaps the biggest game of the entire year. Caveats and reasons abound for his addition to the lineup — Dairon Asprilla’s suspension, Conechny’s exact status was unknown — but the fact was that Bodily’s name was on the team sheet.

In any case, you still would be forgiven if you didn’t expect him to play, as the odds of a 22-year-old homegrown making his first team Providence Park debut in the playoffs seemed pretty low. And if Jorge Villafana’s goal had stood as the winner, he very well may not have. As we all saw, the game went into extra time, and then on came Bodily, making his MLS Cup debut in the 105th minute.

It’s not that everyone was surprised to see Bodily play because he wasn't a good enough player. Those watching on were surprised because ... they hadn’t seen him play. It’s also not that Bodily didn’t have skills. In his time in college, Bodily showed a knack for finding good spots to create or score goals. It wasn’t the body of work; it was just that he was an unknown quantity in 2020. We didn’t know what we were going to see.

If past is precedent, we had a chance of seeing a pretty talented player. The winger/all around attacker had had a pretty solid junior season for UW before signing with the Timbers. He tallied 12 goals and six assists that season before signing with the Timbers and was named a semi-finalist for the MAC Hermann trophy, recognizing the top collegiate soccer players in the country. The fluidity and intricacies of the college game (non-running clock and unlimited subs is weird, y’all) make it hard to nail him down to a specific position, but he was signed to the first team for his attacking verve, with hopes down the line of him becoming a cog in the Timbers’ attack.

On Sunday, we saw but the briefest of glimpses into what he might be able to bring. Coming on as a winger in place of Andy Polo, Bodily seemed to be tasked with pressing the Dallas backline and trying to link up with attackers along Portland’s left flank. And if the stats from FBref.com are to be believed, he didn’t perform too badly: 13 out of 16 passes were completed (a better percentage than Marvin Loria on the night), there was one shot creating action (more than Jeremy Ebobisse on the night) and one successful dribble past an opponent (more than Cristhian Paredes on the night). He even made his penalty kick in the shootout, which he needed to make as the fifth kicker to keep Portland alive at that point. Bodily very much did not look overwhelmed by the moment.

It was only a cameo appearance, and we will need a lot more tape on Bodily to see if he has the stuff to become a regular member of the Timbers’ roster. But consider the beginnings of another Timbers 2 product: Eryk Williamson. He logged just about 250 minutes for Portland in 2019 and didn’t really put up any significant statistics during that time. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, he started for the team while in Orlando for MLS is Back and bam — he became an essential part of the roster in 2020. So it’s not unprecedented on Giovanni Savarese’s Timbers that a young player has a rapid rise to earn first team soccer.

A key difference between the two is that Williamson spent all of 2018 and the better part of 2019 developing on Timbers 2. Bodily would have most likely spent most of this year developing on the reserve side as well were it not for the shortened and restricted USL season brought on by the pandemic. The developmental path forward for Bodily is further complicated by Timbers 2 going on hiatus next season and the rumored MLS reserve league still being only a rumor at this point. Whatever the path may be, Bodily will have to find a way to continue playing competitive minutes if he is going to follow the same track as Williamson and develop into a contributor on the first team level.

But if this season is to be believed, Savarese and his staff aren’t afraid to throw young players straight into the fire. And if last Sunday is to be believed, Bodily appears to have shown the staff enough to warrant first team minutes in big situations. If he continues to get chances, and uses those chances to show the level of talent that earned him a Timbers jersey, then Blake Bodily might just have given us all a glimpse into the future.